Actor and activist Nandita Das talks about writing and directing her first play.

Walking out of Nandita Das’ play, Between the lines you can’t help noticing couples giving each other knowing glances and confessing that they saw a bit of themselves in the characters portrayed on stage.

If the idea was to make the audience ask questions and relate to the issues that were spoken about, the play was a success; not bad at all for a first time playwright and director. But then again, Nandita Das is not just any first timer.

Nandita has always been good at multi-tasking and while her role as actor and activist brings enough experience for her to carry onto stage, for this play, she drew mainly from those she goes through as mother and wife.

“I didn’t plan it; I had just moved to Bombay and I had a little baby and my role as the Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society. It all happened simultaneously and it was crazy so I wanted to tell this story of a woman juggling career and life. A lot of people in our class believe that a gender imbalance doesn’t exist in our homes.

They say, “What are you complaining about, you are so privileged,” and I am but the point is these inequalities exist in our homes too but in subtler forms and that makes it harder to confront. The idea was to talk about things that people don’t talk about, to read between the lines. And I thought a play will be an easier way to do it than film but it was far more difficult than I imagined both writing and rehearsing the play. My son, Vihaan would come and say ‘Mama aaj rehearsal nahin jaana’; he knew the word rehearsal before he knew anything else! ” explains Nandita.

Whereas in the play, Maya and Shekar found themselves pitted against each other professionally, so it was with Nandita and husband Subodh Maskara, except in this case, they were on the same team.

The production was Subodh’s debut as an actor. “Subodh and I would say ‘the play is fifty percent our lives, you guess which fifty per cent.’ It was challenging because a lot of things we would discuss at home and a lot of our own arguments found their way into the script and dialogues from the script came up at home because in a way they were very real. Anything that makes you come close to reality throws up a lot of issues and when you are faced with these, you have to confront them and doing that in a positive way ensures that you get to know each other better.”

Taking on a layered topic such as gender inequality, Nandita is careful “not to sound too strident or didactic”.

The script is light and uses all the clichés to its advantage. “I didn’t want to give it too much of a ‘flag flying feminist’ angle because then people have their shutters down.

The idea is not to be threatening but to warm the audience up and say, “We are all conditioned, but can we try and look at it together and ask the right questions.”

Like this production, all of Nandita’s work is anchored towards stories she feels have a social conscience. “I felt the need to tell these stories as they resonate with my own concerns and dilemmas. We are just catalysts. Even yesterday, the Foundation is the one working for breast cancer; we are just doing our two bits by raising awareness and bringing people together. That’s the least people in the public domain can do and should do.”

Raising unasked questions

“You always take the bigger piece of cake,” says Nandita Das’ character Maya in Between the Lines to her husband Shekar, to point out a subtle inequality in their decade old, happy, married life. The play, performed as part of Ushalakshmi Breast Cancer Foundation’s fund raiser on Saturday evening was filled with such little metaphors that made us think even as it put a smile on our faces. By Nandita’s home production house, Chotti Productions, Between the lines is a glimpse into the marriage of Maya and Shekar, a lawyer couple, who find themselves, arguing on the opposite sides of a criminal case. Shekar is an eminent criminal lawyer while Maya works from the house, drafting contracts for a law firm while holding the fort at home until she takes up a pro-bono case defending a woman charged with attempt to murder her abusive husband. The fact that they are fighting against each other, and nature of the case throws up little issues in their own marriage. The play illustrates how the two of them live this through.